May 26, 2004
The Getty Center
So.Le lives in a converted garage. The floors are newly carpeted; she re-painted the walls. The window looks out over a back alley. The studio is cozy and looks larger than it is. She's divided the space with curtains.
This afternoon we went to the Getty Center. I had been to the museum in its old home years ago, but had yet to visit the new space. The entire morning had been overcast, but as soon as we arrived at the tram, the skies cleared. By the time we reached the hill-top vantage point of the center, we could clearly see the ocean and, to the east, the cluster of skyscrapers of downtown L.A.
The current exhibits were all that I could have hoped for and more. The Photographers of Genius hilighted some photographers I knew and introduced me to others I need to explore. One of the more exciting revelations was the vibrancy of cyanotypes. Another exhibition traced Islamic influences on the Italian Renaissance.
The galleries in themselves were beautiful. While the exteriors weren't always breathtaking, the interiors dictated the shapes. Visiting the museum and grounds, I wanted to work there. If I can find a position at the center, I will move to L.A.
May 25, 2004
We tend to get off to slow starts when we're together. Yesterday we left the house in the afternoon only to have to return five minutes from the front door. So. received a call from a client; she had to send them fonts. Once we were again on our way we drove to LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). I wanted to see the La Brea tar pits; So. wasn't interested.
We wound our way through the Diane Arbus exhibit and then toured some of the other galleries. In one, elevators no bigger than shoeboxes clung to the floor. They came and went, opening on the eighth floor.
The Japanese galleries offered twisting walkways that offset the artwork. The walls were made to look like translucent paper, softening the ambient light that filtered through the space. Platforms oozed out from the floor; the scrolls were housed in spaces made to resemble that of Japanese homes. Electric lights could be switched on manually if the natural illumination fell below eight foot candles.
For dinner we drove to Sawtell kitchen. The fish was very good. We sat outside and as the sun set, a waiter turned on a heat lamp behind us. The skies refused to darken. A pastel glow remained on the horizon, and the skies turned pale and then pale again. It wasn't until we were on the road heading back that they began to darken, as if clouds amassed on the horizon. By then we were home.
May 24, 2004
Sun, Sand, Sky
Yesterday afternoon I followed So.Le to a trance party on Seacrest Beach. We drove through the mountains north and west of Venice to a sliver of sand by the highway. A portable generator fueled 20,000 watts (that's just a random number) of sound, pumping bass out over the waves. The sand shuddered. We waded in the cool Pacific waters, careful to keep our distance from the blue jellyfish that washed up on the beach as the afternoon waned. They looked like discarded plastic wrappers. People danced on the sand: alone, with flags and hula hoops, with friends. We snacked on sesame crackers and spinach dip, and Middle Eastern bread and hummus from Trader Joe's. On the horizon we could see the hills of nearby islands.
We stayed until the sun set behind some low hills attached to the continent; the beach faced south. By then the afternoon had turned cold. Returning to the car, we drove to Monterey Park for Taiwanese food. We ate at a restaurant that had started as a street stall in Taipei. So. told us that at first, it was just a noodle shop on the corner. Then they started refilling the stall from the trunk of a Mercedes. Most recently, they built a counter and put in a plasma t.v. There's still no place to sit at the stall in Taipei. People order their noodles and stand around slurping it from their bowls. It was delicious.
May 23, 2004
California here I am
I have made it to California, completely two days of travel. The weather is cool and dry, a welcome change from the humidity of New York. My first Jet Blue experience was a positive one. I watched an R.E.M. concert and ate blue potato chips. The television was so distracting I was completely unprepared for our landing, and the bump on the tarmac surprised me. Unfortunately, I napped but a little.
Two planes arrived at Long Beach simultaneously and the baggage claim was a zoo. My bag came out quickly, however, and soon I was in So.Le's new Mini, heading to her home and some good burritos. Afterwards we went to one of her friend's new house to take a tour and drink some sake. Tomorrow it's a beach day. It's great being in California.
May 22, 2004
At the exchange counter in Queen Alia airport the man told me he didn't accept Syrian coin, then proceeded to take my fifteen J.D. and change and few hundred Syrian pounds and give me twenty-six U.S. dollars for it. The colors in my wallet dissolved to a monochrome green. I wandered the duty-free shops. I contemplated buying candy for the trip, but the quantities all seemed too large.
I went to bed last night at almost midnight. I dreamed I was already in California, visiting P.K. I drove to her house in my mother's car. I invited her to join So.Le. and myself for a beach party tomorrow. When I went to leave the car was gone.
Oddly, P.K. was living in a house on an acre of land. The landscape looked more Connecticut than California. I had parked behind two trucks, and thought that another green car at the bottom of the hill was mine. Somehow, the trucks and car had all slipped out of gear and rolled down the hill into a swamp. The car behind the trucks was a green Taurus, but then P. pointed out it was a station wagon as opposed to the sedan my mother owns. I don't remember the resolution, but I remember another individual telling me that there had been a rash of stolen cars in the area.
I woke up at seven this morning. I wanted to continue sleeping but decided I needed to do laundry as early as I could. L.W. and G.F. are stopping by at noon for brunch. The countdown now begins for California.
May 21, 2004
Back in the States
I've been up for almost twenty-four hours. Instead of sleeping on the plane I watched movies, one after another, from On the Ropes to The Missing to School of Rock. I woke this morning at 6.30am Jordan time (11.30pm Thursday night in New York) and arrived in New York at 4.10pm local time. I didn't get back to my apartment until almost seven. Tomorrow morning I have to do laundry and repack in time to catch a flight to L.A. at 5.40pm. I left during the spring and have come back to summer.
I had decided on my last day in Amman to visit the King Hussein Mosque. It would be my final act as a tourist on this trip. Unfortunately, I had misread the visiting hours, and arrived just as they ended. The guard told me I could come back tomorrow. But tomorrow I would be leaving.
I took a taxi to Abdoun Circle and ate at a fast food schwarma restaurant. I walked around the circle looking at the cafes before choosing it. Then I moved to a cafe to write a final few letters and to drink a last cup of Turkish coffee. One table ordered a feast for lunch. Sizzling platters arrived on their table. Other groups drank fruit shakes and smoked nargileh.
On my trips to the far East, I've been able somewhat to blend in with my surroundings, but in the Middle East I was conscious always of being a visitor. Rarely was I mistaken for a local. Once was at a schwarma stand when a man asked me how much a Coke was. I was standing by the cooler when he grabbed a soda for his son. When I told him I didn't know, he replied, "Don't you work here?" I had to admit I didn't.
From Abdoun Circle I returned to the downtown area. The day was clear and cool, only the second good day I had had in Amman. I walked to the Roman Ampitheatre and climbed midway up to sit in the shade. There I watched as people wandered in and out to sit on the stone benches. Boys walked around with thermoses selling shots of coffee. I imagined what it would be like to watch a performance there. And as my mind drifted into the ancient past of Philadelphia, I could already feel Amman drifting away from me, the Middle East carried on within as a memory.
May 19, 2004
The long goodbye
The days before I return from a place are generally lazy ones. Today I sat in the lobby of my hotel, waiting to see if anyone would want to share a taxi to visit the so-called desert castles. There is no public transport to those I most want to see, and the day threatened rain; for the time being I am tired of hitching. People came and went, to Jerash, to Haifa, to wander Amman. On TV a series of music videos played. Beyonce, an Egyptian pop star, another Arabic singer, Missy Elliott . . . I gave up the desert castles and left the hotel to wander the neighborhood.
I climbed the hill above downtown. A group of boys sitting on a corner pointed me the way to the top, and I started upon a crumbling stair wedged between houses. I approached the citadel on Jebel al-Qal'ah the back way, and had to return to the main entrance to purchase admission into the archeological museum. Within they house pages of the Dead Sea scrolls, and a statue of Icarus's father (his name escapes me now) found on the site, a prized possession. Behind the museum, the remains of an Umayyid palace lay open to exploration, anchored by a reconstructed mosque. From the remnants of the castle walls, all of downtown Amman lay before me.
Returning home, I looked for a phone to call a friend of my cousin; I had promised her I would remember her to him. The receptionist at the hotel pointed me to a bookstall who pointed me to another place down the street. At a small shop I waited for the attendant to complete his prayers in a space no bigger than his kneeling body. He told me his phone could not place calls to mobiles and directed me further down the street. There, I called Sa'ad. Tomorrow he leaves to cover the Arab Economic Summit, but asked if he could be of any service. He remembered my cousin as a wonderful woman. I thanked him and told him I was leaving in another day and was just relaxing in Amman. We said goodbye. I promised to convey his best wishes and we hung up.
This afternoon I sat in a cafe attached to a contemporary art museum. I drank sweetened Turkish coffee. A light rain started and then stopped. The sound of water continued from the central fountain. I have learned to tell time by the call of the muzzein, and when they sounded over the city I knew it was four thirty or thereabouts. The rain started again then stopped.
Various people came and sat and left. A man sketched patterns in blue ink on a notepad. Another sat and stared, elbows upon a book he never opened, head in his hands. A woman with her head covered by a scarf chatted with a man in a blue shirt, their conversation interrupted by mobile phone calls. Another woman, head uncovered, appeared and joined a man sitting alone who had spilled his coffee.
In the tranquil setting I thought over the past three weeks, the people I have met and the places that I've seen, the ever present schwarma stands and the ease of sticking out your hand to obtain transport wherever you want to go. It's hard to imagine that in two days I'll be gone.
But, late last night instead of sleeping I flipped through the guidebook. Iran and Yemen call, and in researching those countries, I know I'll soon be back in the Middle East.
May 18, 2004
The Promised Land
Today I stood upon Mt. Nebo and looked out to the Promised Land! Then I went to the mall and bought a new pair of shoes.
This morning I woke up late and then made my way to the Abdali bus station. The bus for Madaba was leaving just as I got there. We drove west through Amman, then turned south on the Airport road.
Madaba is a small town noted mainly for its churches, which house superb examples of Byzantine-era mosaics. The most famous is the mosaic map, housed in a 19th century Greek Orthodox church which at one time detailed all major biblical sites from Lebanon to Egypt. What remains is merely a third of the whole. The main area of the map which remains is protected by a chain fence. A sign warns tour guides not to step on the map itself. In the corners, carpets protect other pieces of the map.
After touring some of the major mosaic sites, I looked at the map and decided to try making it to Mt. Nebo, some 10 kilometers away. Mt. Nebo, on the edge of the East Bank plateau, is where Moses is said to have stood and seen the Promised Land. He later died and is buried in the vicinity, but the precise location is unknown. Once I was alone on the minibus, the driver decided to talk to me. And so he jabbered away in Arabic and I smiled when he smiled and laughed when he laughed, and so together we made the pilgrimmage to the site.
From atop the mount, I had a view of the Dead Sea and clear into Isreal. The weather wasn't cooperating however. The day was overcast and cold, and while the Dead Sea seemed to call me, I was unprepared for a dip in its salty waters.
I hitched a ride back to town. A taxi stopped for me by the side of the road. It's western passengers seemed surprised. They had boarded the taxi in Aqaba for the trip up to Madaba. The fare was approaching 70 J.D. The man in the back asked I had hitched much in Jordan and I said I had. The buses don't seem to run quite as often as one would like, or sometimes even where one would like, I told him. He shrugged and looked thoughtful.
Back in town, I completed the mosaic tour and boarded a bus back to Amman. It dropped us off at the outskirts, much to the dismay of some other western passengers. I crossed the street and asked about a bus to downtown. A man told me to wait and moments later it arrived. From there I took a taxi to Abdoun circle. An affluent part of town, the houses look like palaces. I walked to the Blue Fig cafe and had lunch. I was the most underdressed person there, as businessmen took their meals and made cell phone calls. I can see how at night it could be a cool place to hang out.
After lunch I took a cab to the Mecca Mall, a newer looking mall far to the west of town. I ate a frozen yogurt and browsed for shoes. The pair I had brought with me had been torn to shreds. I tried on various pairs, and finally decided upon one, slashed 40% from its original price.
Heading back to town I decided to stop and thank Luna, the woman who had recommended the jewelery store and the mall. Stopping in her shop, I found she wasn't there. I asked the attendant, and she said that Luna was at university today, but offered to pass along a message. I wrote out a note and then started chatting with her. She told me that her fiance owned the store, and that he was Luna's brother. She told me her name was Rita, and when I asked her wedding date she told me August 1st and then invited me to the wedding. I thanked her but told her I'd be back in New York by then. We chatted about this and that and about travelling. She told me she was a kindergarten English teacher. I asked her about property costs in Amman and she told me the price of her house and the approximate cost of houses in Abdoun circle. She told me that when her cousin from Australia saw the houses in Abdoun she was shocked. They don't have houses like that back home, she told Rita. And while they don't have houses like that on the East coast, somehow I could see that architecture suriving quite well in California.
May 17, 2004
Arriving in Amman in the afternoon, I took some time to wander the parts of the city near my hotel. I walked up to Mango Street, stopping by the funk Books@cafe for lunch and a vanilla shake. Then I kept walking, up to the second circle and then onto the third.
Walking Amman is like walking San Francisco, but worse, as all the streets plunge into valleys or climb steeply up hills. At the third circle, I asked if there were a service taxi that would run near my hotel. A man pointed me to the right street off the roundabout. There, I stood next to a man waiting for the same taxi. Moments later, he bade me follow him. A bus was arriving.
I didn't have change for the bus, but the driver let me board. I stood squashed between people, unable to see out, unsure of where I was going. When, at one stop, a number of people got up to get off, I got off with them. The stop was mere meters from my hotel.
With time to kill, I wandered off to see the main attraction in the city, a reconstructed Roman ampitheatre. Locals sat on the rows of seats, enjoying their afternoon off. I peeked in the two museums located in the wings of the theatre, and then started back home.
Seeing a crowd of people standing outside a sweets shop, I got in line. I paid my 1/2 dinar and received a warm plate of custard, a sweet crunchy topping baked onto it. It was delicious. Heading back up the street, I got lost in the confusing turns and intersections. The map was useless. Walking past my hotel, I asked a guard, who pointed me back the way I had come. Suddenly seeing everthing from that angle, it all made sense.
This morning I awoke late and made my way to Jerash to tour the Roman ruins there. At a local falafel stand, a man helped me on my way back, and I spent the afternoon touring the Museum of Fine Arts and then shopped various handicraft stores. At a jewelry shop, I met the designer, who offered to customize one piece for me after I pointed out some chipped silver. "I think adding this piece here would be nice," she told me, and set upon twisting back the metal pieces. "It's been a crazy day today," she said. "I've just come back from the workshop." I asked if she had assistants. "Yes," she said. "But constantly you have to manage. There!" She showed me the finished piece and I thanked her.
At another shop I asked the cashier where I could hang out in the city. "What do you want to see?" she asked. I told her I was staying in downtown but wanted to get a feel of the city. She told me about the Mecca Mall and the Blue Fig and a handful of other places. She tells me there are movie theatres and bowling at the mall. She emphasizes the fact that there is bowling. "There are two Ammans," she tells me, referring to the downtown area and the more fashionable parts and tomorrow I will search out the latter.
At the Nature store, the girl working there told me she was from Kuwait. Her family was visiting Jordan when the Gulf war started and so they stayed. She tells me she wants to leave Jordan and go somewhere far away. She wants to visit Germany and France and the United States. She's been working at the store for only a year but she likes it. She likes meeting people and though she has a degree in agriculture wants to open up a souvenir shop someday. I tell her I'm looking for something for one of my younger cousins and she shows me a necklace. "One of our best-sellers," she tells me. I tell her she's a good salesperson, but she disagrees. "If I were, I would have suggested the other necklace. It's five dinars more." She smiles.
May 16, 2004
From the desert to the city
Leaving Wadi Musa, I took the six a.m. bus to Wadi Rum. It's the only bus that travels between the two towns every day. After circling the town to pick up everyone, the bus climbed into the mountains around Petra, offering great views down into the valley. The sun was just rising, and the skies were a pale blue.
We drove to the Desert Highway and then headed south, finally turning east down the access road into Wadi Rum. In the small village, a guide met me and I jumped into his land cruiser to head out into the desert. The sun was still rising; its rays brightly lit the red sandstone mountains. Once ensconced in his bedouin tent, he offered me tea. His cell phone buzzed and he apologized, he had to go rescue a friend of his whose land rover had been stuck in the sand. I wandered around camp. The tent was nestled beside a large rock, which offered both shelter and shade. The sand was soft beneath my feet. In the distance I could see far off rock formations.
In the afternoon, my guide took us for a ride through the desert, stopping at naturally formed arches and bridges cut out of the rock by erosion. A group of travellers with me took the opportunity to practice rock climbing, running across rock bridges and jumping upon them to test their strength.
The sunset found me walking across the plains. A Japanese woman met me atop a small rise, and asked me how long I was staying in the Rum. I told her just that night. She was a tour guide working out of Isreal; she had lived there for the past six years. She was staying with Bedouin friends in a tent I had passed, pitched in a sand dune. She had come often in the past to Jordan with groups, but now tourists were few. She said that for the first time she had felt uncomfortable coming to Jordan as a result of the Isreal/Palestine tensions. She wishes they would remain one country, because it's easier to lead tourists. She told me she had extreme views, that Lebanon should be Christian, Syria Muslim, Isreal Jewish, then she laughed.
As the sun disappeared behind the far off mountains, the night grew suddenly cold. Venus hovered above the horizon. We walked back towards her tent and she asked me where I was staying. I pointed and she said she knew the people I was staying with. I mentioned that a group of Hungarians were due to arrive for dinner, and she told me that if things got too noisy I was welcome to share the tents of her friends. I thanked her.
Back at camp the Hungarian tourists had arrived. Their Bedouin guides entertained them, singing to the accompaniment of drums and oud. We joined them for dinner, a repast of chicken and potatoes cooked in a steel drum in the sand. Yogurt and salad rounded out the meal. An Arab driver from Aqaba told me that there were two groups that had come. They joined the two groups "so that we could enjoy together." Then he corrected himself. "No, they enjoy each other; I don't enjoy them." Someone asked Hussein, the owner of the camp, whether the Bedouins sing and carry on like they were for the tourists. "No," he said. "We like quiet. That's why we run from these groups."
After dinner all but two left. They had decided to stay in the desert, and the quiet returned to our space. A nargileh was brought forth and we all shared in the pipe. We chatted and listened to the space around us.
At eleven I dragged blankets and a mattress up a nearby sand dune, having decided to sleep under the stars. The sky was amazing. After a while I grew tired of counting the shooting stars and just gazed up at the heavens. I slept intermittently. Each time my eyes opened to the immense sight above me; I was unwilling to close them. The milky way rose out of the east and slowly followed the constellations. Once I woke to the weight of feet on my legs. I rose to find a desert fox before me. I could see its shape silhouetted on the dune; then it darted off.
In the morning I could see the paw prints surrounding our makeshift campsite. The night had proved cold, and I was coiled up in my blankets. The sky opened the palest of blues; the few clouds colored rose by the rising sun. There was a seven a.m. bus to catch to the main road, and so I quickly got ready and was soon back in the village.
The seven a.m. bus had left at six forty-five, and so those of us who had waited were stuck haggling with a driver to take us to the turn off. The trip was cold as we sat in the back of an open Land Rover. At the intersection, a large group of Arabs waited patiently for the bus. They said that it would be easier to go to Aqaba and catch a bus from there to Amman. We watched as an Aquaba bus stopped and pulled away, heading in the opposite direction.
A car pulled up, and an Arab man chatted with the driver. "He can take you to Aman," he told two of us. We thanked him and put our bags in the back.
The man pulled into a small town a few kilometers away. He pointed to a passing truck. "My brother," he told us. He honked and pulled up behind him. From the truck he took newspapers; returning to the car he passed two back. "English," he said, handing me the Jordan Times. "Arabic," he said, passing a newspaper to the man beside me. As we drove, he stopped at each police checkpoint, greeting the officers warmly and delivering their papers. Just outside of Amman he delivered his last paper. "Finished," he said. "No more police." He drove us to the edge of town and then passed us off to a local bus heading to Abdali station. From there it was a short taxi ride to my hotel. I have once again reached Amman, with time to spare.
May 14, 2004
Petra and back again
At the Abadi bus station a man asked us (I had met another traveller on the bus from Damascus heading to Petra) if we wanted a taxi. How much, we asked. Meter he told us. We asked him to take us to the Wahabit bus station to transfer to a bus to Petra. A man got into the front seat. He looked like a dirty version of Moses. "To Petra?" he asked. "Come take my taxi. Fifteen dinars each. Thirty total. Air conditioned. The bus is 12.50 dinars." We told him no. He persisted. Finally he got out of the cab.
While stopped in traffic another man boarded the front of the taxi. He wanted fifty dinars for the ride. We told him no. "Maybe no bus," he said. We said maybe. He got out. The driver mimed talking with his hands. "Too much," he said. We agreed. At the station a cafe owner directed us to the bus. We each paid 2.50 dinars and were on our way.
At Wadi Musa, a man greeted the bus. He had rooms for five dinars and so I agreed. That afternoon I restocked film. The man invited me to tea and we sat chatting about his family. Soon two of his friends appeared and they took tea. One man, from Amman, recently started working in a tourist hotel in Wadi Musa. It was his first time to Petra. I told him it wasn't far from Amman. He shrugged.
At the Sanabel Mechanical Bakery, fresh loaves fell from a conveyer belt from the ceiling. I purchased three hot flat round loaves and went back to the hotel to rest. The night porter invited me to sit with him for a while and we watched Iraq and Saudi Arabia play in a Middle East cup match. He told me that he was a bedouin; that most of the people in Wadi Musa were. He told me that twenty years ago you could still find tents and goats in the valley, but now it had become built up with tourism. He told me he had a girlfriend but that it was difficult in this culture. He saw her once a week, but then said that once a week was enough. As the hour drew late I bid him good night and went to bed.
At five-thirty the next morning I got up and prepared to visit Petra. Walking down the road to the entrance, the sun was just coming up over the valley ridge. I paid my admission and began walking down to the siq and then through it. The entrance to Petra lies at the end of a long corridor formed by tectonic forces. At the end of the 1.2 kilometer defile (which at points measures no more than 10 meters across) you get your first glimpse of the Khazneh, nicknamed the Treasury by locals in a mistaken belief that pirates had stored their treasure there. Photographers waited for the sun to rise and shine on the red sandstone. I continued walking through the almost deserted city. Reaching the far side, I decided to climb up to the Monestary, a structure carved into the rock that echoes the Khazneh. The sun was rising up behind its facade.
Coming back down to the city I returned to the Khazneh to catch the sun. I took pictures and met a bedouin man who tried to sell me some jewelry. He introduced himself as Khaled and when I asked him about the snake monument he told me I should climb to the Sacrificial High Place for its views over Petra and then go down the back way, past the Garden Triclinium and then to the Snake Monument that way. I thanked him and did just that.
Atop the Sacrificial High Place, a 30-year-old English man was pointing out sites. I asked him about Aaron's Tomb, and he pointed to a white mosque high up in the mountains. He said the Snake Monument was about halfway there. He had worked as a tourguide in the area, and also in China and told me he was on his way through Central Asia and then into China by the silk road. He was returning to Yangshou to visit friends. I thanked him for his direction and set off back down the mountain and towards the Snake Monument.
I ate lunch in the shadow a temple below the Monument. En route I had met a man shepharding sheep who told me that I had but 20 minutes to walk from the edge of the main town. I thought about trying the 5km walk to the Tomb, but decided I didn't have enough water. Then below I saw a dark-skinned man leading a Caucasian woman. Thinking he was a guide I decided to follow them.
Back on the main road I looked at the footprints in the dirt, deciding that a flat print with a circle in the heel must be those of the sandals worn by the woman. And so I set off to follow them. An hour or so later I caught up with them. They were a French couple. He worked in Amman with a Spanish medical relief NGO and she was a midwife in Paris. He was supposed to be based in Baghdad but had started just as all the NGO's decided to pull out of the city. He laughed when I told him that I was about to return to the main city of Petra when I saw them pass, thinking him a guide. We walked and chatted and followed the road around back and then up Jebel Haroum.
When the main road ended we followed a small path up into the mountains. A few hundred meters from the summit it ended. The views over the valley and surrounding plains were stunning, but in the absence of a logical way to go, and with the path hugging the edge of the mountain, we turned back.
Just back down the main road, we saw a bedouin child tending goats. We asked him about the tomb. He pointed back the way we came and then right, up the mountain, from when we had just come. We asked again and he pointed again, flicking his wrist to the right. Dominique frowned, muttering that he must be talking about a path only donkeys can tread and we continued back down the mountain. An hour later we came upon a cross roads. The white mosque that marked the place where Moses's brother glinted in the sun. This was where I paused, then followed Alex's sandal-prints. We guessed that the right fork would have been a more direct way, but the hour was getting late and we set off back towards Petra.
Back in the main area we drank 2 litres of water in a minute and a half. The sun had scorched us. They were leaving the next day; she is on a plane back to Paris on Saturday. I sat in the shade of the rest stop for a while and then climbed to see the Silk, Urn, and Corinthian Tombs. Then it was the long uphill walk back to town. People offered donkeys and horses and carts back to the gate but I turned them away. At the end of such a long day, I barely made it back. I sat with Fahley, the night porter, and watched some more football, before climbing the stairs to my third floor room and to bed.
This morning my calves ached. My legs were stiff. I thought I had pulled a muscle. But I stretched and slowly made my way back down to Petra. There were but a few things I neglected the day before due to the nature of my legs after the 10km return hike that I had done (and this after climbing stairs to two of the other main attractions and walking the length of the main city twice). Exiting the Siq I ran into Khaled. He was impressed that I had walked as far as I had. "Strong," he said. No, I shook my head. Just determined. But I told him that while I had almost made it to the top of the mountain the path ended. He told me there should be two bedouin police at the mosque but I said I couldn't find the path. He told me there were stairs, and I surmised that we had gone the wrong way around the back. I told him next time I would go, maybe with donkeys. He asked what I had planned today. I told him just the museum and then back to rest. He bade me a good journey.
I walked the length of the city to find the museum closed. I rested in the shade, chatting with an English woman resting bofore her ascent to the Monestary. I told her it didn't take long. She guessed the guides estimated longer to convince you to take a donkey. After eating a brief repast I walked back towards the entrance, climbing some small hills to see the recently excavated church and then across a wash to the Tomb of Sextius Florentinus, which I had missed the day before, having stopped at the Palace Tomb.
There two bedouin women sat with a child. They bade me sit and have tea. I did and looked over their wares. Soon another woman joined us who spoke better english, and who drove a hard bargain. I sat for a while, drinking cup after cup of tea while we bargained and chatted. She offered a guide to Aaron's Tomb, and I said I had already gone and, while I had missed the Tomb, would only go again on another trip.
After our transactions were finished I thanked them for the tea and prepared to take my leave of Petra. Near the Treasury I ran into Khaled. He beamed. "Finished?" he asked, drawing a hand before him, palm down. I nodded. "Come to my village have tea?" I told him I was too tired; that I should write my mother and then I needed to rest my legs. He nodded and took a silver bracelet from his arm. "For you," he said. I protested. "No," he said. "For you, friend." I thanked him and shook his hand. "Next time, tea," he said. I smiled and agreed. Next time.
May 12, 2004
Crossing (into) Jordan
A cool wind blew through Damascus yesterday, the winds following me as I made my way south into Jordan. This morning I rose at six to catch the seven a.m. Karnak (government sponsored tourist bus) to Amman. At the border we were delayed for an hour. An Arabic man travelling with two children had numerous disputes. His children were well travelled due to the stamps on their German children's passport, but somehow the authorities were unwilling to let him through. Finally the conductor of the bus took his luggage out from under the bus and left it at immigration. We drove off leaving him and his children seemingly stranded.
In Amman, I decided to come straight to Petra. The minibus drove south down the Desert Highway, the desert stretching to the horizon all around us. As we approached the city, the bus turned off towards Wadi Musa, and started climbing. Suddenly vegetation appeared by the side of the road, and trees lined the way.
Arriving in Petra, I checked into a hotel down the street from city center, a (supposed) five minute walk from the entrance. I've wanted to see the ancient city since seeing the third Indiana Jones film, and it was all I could do to keep myself from spending the waning hours of the day walking through the siq to catch my first glimpse. Already I have set the alarm for six in the morning so that I can arrive at the gates when it opens. And now, to the supermarket to prepare my picnic lunch.
May 11, 2004
Hammam hammam (doo doo doo doo doo)
I'm taking things more slowly these past two days. Yesterday, I took a day trip to Bosra to visit the Roman ampitheatre and citadel built around it. Arriving at the bus station I had just missed a bus to Bosra, and so had to take a bus first to Deraa. From there I transferred to a minivan that took me to the door of the citadel. The temperatures had topped 100 degrees F, and a hot wind was blowing across the plains. Inside the rock walls of the castle, however, it was cool.
I walked around the interiors of the building and then climbed a set of stairs up to walk the walls. Turning a corner and walking through a small arch I emerged atop an awesome 15,000 seat ampitheater. The theatre at Bosra is a rarity in and of itself, for the fact that it is one of the few free-standing Roman ampitheatres. It is immense. From the top rows I looked down at the tiny children who were playing on the procenium. I then walked down through the rows upon rows of seats to look back up at the rows that seemed to stretch on forever.
From the citadel, I wandered to the edge of the old town, but the day being so hot and dry I decided to flag down the next minivan to Deraa to make my way back. At Deraa I had just missed an air-con bus back to Damascus, and was put on a local bus that waited another half hour before departing. As it chugged along the highway, picking up and dropping off passengers along the way I fell asleep. Some 50 kilometers from the city, the bus stopped and the conductor had the remaining passengers transfer to a minivan parked by the side of the road. Once in Damascus, the van stopped at a station. "Baramke?" I asked. A man said no, and then told me to wait. He stepped out into the street and waved down a passing minivan and put me on it. I thanked him and soon arrived at the main southern terminal in Damascus.
This morning I slept late. After a light breakfast at the hotel, I made my way to the Hammam Nureddin in the heart of the old quarter. Known as one of the finest baths in Damascus, I was prepared to be pampered. After surrendering my valuables to the front desk and my clothes to man standing atop a raised sitting area, I was dressed in a towel and sent into the baths. An attendant gave me a bar of soap and a scrub, placing the price tag of the sticker on my chest. He pointed to the sticker and waved his finger back and forth in front of me. I told him I wouldn't take it off; he smiled. Then he directed me to the steam room.
I sat sweating in the steam room for some minutes, timing myself by watching the other patrons. The marble floors were warm, and soon I made my way into the smaller hotter room where the steam originates. It was wonderful breathing the humid air after the past few hot dry days in the desert. From there I went back to the cool room where the attendant took off the sticker on my chest and told me to wait.
A man waiting with me asked where I was from. After I told him I was Chinese he told me he was Iraqi. He now lives in Canada, after emigrating in 1991. I asked him why he left, and he replied, "Saddam. It's a good question," he said. "And a good answer," was my response. He now imports cars to Iraq. He's currently on a business trip where he plans to visit his family in Najaf. He tells me his immediate family is in Canada, and when I ask him about his wife, he tells me they met in Canada, but that she is an Iraqi. "It's the culture," he tells me. He wanted to marry someone the same culture, and I told him I understood. He asked me, and I said that even though I live in America I would be more predisposed to marry someone Asian, at least, if not Chinese. I ask him if his children had ever visited Iraq and he said they had a few years back. Did they like it? "It was hot," he said. "They didn't like it." I ask him if he will move his parents to Canada and he shrugs. "It depends on how things go," he tells me. "If things get better."
Soon the attendant returned and directed me to a smaller room where a man scrubbed and bathed me. He slapped my stomach to let me know when to turn over and dragged me by the legs when he wanted to reposition me. From there it was to the massage room where a large man rubbed me down with hot water and oils. Then it was back into the steam room with my soap and scrub to wash a final time. An hour or so after I had first entered the steam bath I was back in the main vaulted sitting area. The attendant asked if I wanted tea. He draped me in towels, tieing one around my head and placing another over my legs after I had sat. A waiter brought tea and a glass of water. I sat and enjoyed the surroundings. An Arabic tape played off in a corner. Other people sat draped in towels around the room.
A Palestinian man asked me where I was from. We chatted about our jobs and about America. He had emigrated to California but then returned. He didn't like the states. "It was okay," he said. "Too big." I said it was difficult if one didn't have a community, and he agreed. "A community!" He lives now in a smaller town in the West Bank where he works as a computer engineer. He is in Damascus on vacation, but he tells me he feels that once you've seen one of these cities you've seen them all. To a certain extent, he's right, but I feel each still has things to offer. He tells me that they don't have places like this hammam in the West Bank, and he seems to savour the moment. Then he tells me a joke:
In Arabic, the words for "What for?" are ming xing xu, he tells me. So an Arab man and a Chinese man are sitting waiting for a bus and the Arabic man turns to the Chinese man and asks him his name. "Ming Xing Xu," the Chinese man tells him. "What for?" the Arab man replies. "I just want to know your name!"
When he leaves he wishes me a good trip. I wish him likewise and relish the moments after my steam bath and massage. I towel myself off and change. At the cashier, a man pours me a shot of coffee, and another rings me up. The entire experience has cost me just under six dollars. When I emerge back into the covered souk, I feel a changed man. The Palestinian man had told me of a khan being renovated just two doors down. "It's through a small door; they'll let you in to look," and after searching for a little while I find the Khan As'sad Pacha. The building is pristine. A stage and lights are set up and I wonder what event is being hosted there. The striped designs are sharp, and the open space let me admire the architecture free from wares lining what might otherwise be shops. It's an impressive building, an immense space. Fresh from my relaxing late morning, I linger in the khan. I am practically alone, and the stone feels cool after the hot baths. I am going to miss Damascus.
May 9, 2004
The desert and Damascus
The afternoon before I left Hama, I wandered by the river. Boys were jumping from a low bridge and from the norias into the murky waters. A boy told me that that's what they do during the summer. Because it's so hot. I noted that he was still dry, and he said he didn't swim. In the small park by the clock tower, a small handicraft fair was in progress. I squeezed in through the entrance and wandered the stalls. One man making desert scenes out of sand poured into bottles commanded a small audience. Families picnicked on the lawn just beyond. One walkway sold flowers. In a stone oven, people made the large flat bread I had seen children carrying around in most of the towns. An old woman rolled out the dough, another woman stuck them to the inside of the oven with a pillow, then pulled them out when they were done. A man sold them hot out of the oven. The entire process took minutes. I ordered one and soon had a hot loaf cooling on my fingers. It was delicious.
Leaving Hama was difficult. I had grown attached to the relaxing town, but the road called and soon I was off to Homs. The road to Palmyra proved difficult, however. Twenty kilometers outside of Homs one of the left rear tires blew out. I had thought a box of tools had fallen in one of the luggage compartments. The bus driver continued driving until a halumpf halumpf halumpf sound came from the rear. He stopped and looked at the tire, then drove off to the next service station. It seemed to prove the last one until Palmyra.
With the tire fixed we were off into the desert. Ninety-six kilometers from Palmyra the spare tire blew. The driver drove more carefully until it too started halumpfing. The driver and conductor got out and cut away the rubber from the tire, and we slowly limped along to the desert city.
Palymra proved immense. After checking into my hotel and eating a falafel, I walked out into the mid-day sun, thinking there would be fewer tourists then. I was right, but with good reason. It was hot and dry and dusty. I wandered the ruins and then returned to the hotel to rest up until the evening.
Unfortunately, the town exhibits the negative effects of mass tourism. The only reason to head out into the desert is to see the ruins, and as a result, the locals seem to see everyone as a dollar sign. Drivers try to sell tours to the Arab Castle overlooking the ruins or to the funeral towers some kilometers distant. In the end, tired of everyone asking, I turned them all down. As the sun set I walked into the Temple of Bel and then back around to ruins to photograph them during the golden hour. As the sun sank behind the surroundings hills, I watched it from the center of the city, sitting on the platform supporting the tetrapylons.
I am now in Damascus, having taken the first bus out of Palmyra. Once we were underway, the conductor put on a film that seemed the Arabic Shaft although the hero seemed to be on the wrong side of the law. The conductor drew all the curtains for the duration of the film. Once the hero and his accomplice had been shot by the police in front of his girlfriend, the curtains were drawn aside to reveal the desert we had been driving through for the past two hours.
Once in the city, I took a taxi to my hotel. The receptionist asked my name and I asked hers in return. "Iman," she said. "Do you know what it means?" I told her no, and she said, "It means 'faith.' Nice, no?" I had to agree.
Driving into the new parts of the city, I was amazed at how it has stretched up into the mountains, as buildings rise up from the plains stacked one on top of another. The old city boasts an immense souk as you enter from the west side. The three story high covered arcade stretches from one end to the great Umayyid mosque. Inside the mosque, the walls are decorated with inlaid gold designs. The effect is strikingly beautiful. I spent the afternoon idly wandering around the streets of the city, ducking into mosques and palaces before stopping at the Albal Gallery cafe for an ice cream.
I'm spending three nights in this city. Tomorrow I'm making a day trip to Bosra to see the ruins of a Roman ampitheatre, and then the day after I plan to rest. Sit in cafes and enjoy a Turkish bath. And then, onto Amman.
May 7, 2004
Crac des Chevaliers
Last night, the manager of the hotel asked if I would be interested in accompanying a German tourist on a tour of the area castles, including Crac des Chevaliers. He told me the taxi would take us up into the mountains. I thought about it for a little while and then declined. He said it was too bad, that I would miss many nice things. It may be true, but I also think when taking a tour you miss out on the many nice things local transportation affords and the many nice people you meet.
This morning I woke with the muzzein, getting up a few hours later. The streets of Hama were all but deserted. I made my way to the microbus station on the edge of town and boarded a van headed to Homs. There I transfered to a van heading to Hosn and the Crac des Chevaliers, a fortress originally built by the Emir of Homs in 1031, but expanded by the Crusader knights around the middle of the 12th century. The castle commands an extraordinary view of the surrounding countryside from its hilltop perch.
The van drove past the turnoff and when I made to get out, the man next to me told me to wait. He indicated the van would turn around and then ascend to the very foot of the castle. I waited and sure enough it did. The van groaned, protesting the climb.
I toured the fortress for the better part of two hours. The bus driver had indicated service would resume in the other direction at one. Being impatient, I hitched a ride to the Homs/Tartus highway and from there, it was but a few moments wait until a Homs-bound van blinked its headlights and I was on my way home.
I'm taking it easy today. Once I returned to Hama, I toured the museum and walked the cobblestone streets of its old town. Tomorrow I head to Tadmor and one of Syria's main attractions, the Roman ruins of Palmyra.
May 6, 2004
Hama and hospitality
I am now in Hama, a pleasant city that resides by the Orontes River. Hama is noted for its norias, wooden water wheels up to 20m in diameter that brought water up from the river to irrigate the nearby lands. It's a pleasant place to rest, and I think I might take a break from travelling and spend an extra day here just resting up. My legs and feet need the break.
This morning I took a luxury bus from Aleppo. Moments after starting, the conductor passed out plastic cups. The passengers all tried to find different places to put them. He then passed out water. The bus let me off on the highway, by a small but raucous market. I took a cab to the city center, and easily found my hotel from there. Once I checked in I decided I was going to starve myself no longer and stopped into the first open place that served food. It was a bakery. A man walked in before me and I watched as he ordered. The boy behind the counter climbed a short ladder and lifted a plate into an opening. Food appeared. The man took his order and left. Following his lead, I ordered what he had, drawing the shapes of the bread he had ordered. When the boy asked me if I wanted a particular thing, I said yes. There were two words I recognized from what the man ordered. I paid and walked out with a bounty of various savory pastries.
I walked to the microbus station in order to find my way to Apamea, a roman ruin on a high grassy mor overlooking the AL-Ghaba plain. Losing my way to the bus station, I inquired at a small shop, and the man wrote out instructions in Arabic so that I might show them if I were lost again.
I took a minivan to Suqeilibiyya and transfered for the remainder of the trip to Apamea. The man beside me asked where I was going and after I told him, he made sure to tell someone else where I was heading when he disembarked. The van let me off at the side of the road, leaving me to climb the rest of the way to the ruin.
Halfway up, by a crumbling stone structure, a man invited me into his tailor's shop. Another man sewed a pair of pants while the first man bade me sit down and offered me sweetened tea. It was delicious after riding in a cramped van and walking in the sweltering sun. Two glasses later I thanked him and went on my way.
Thinking I had arrived at the ruins I climbed through the stone arches and up onto a grassy mound. From there I could see the actual ruins. An almost impossibly long row of columns running through the the fields. I walked along a dirt road to the entrance.
The city of Apamea was founded in the second century BC by one of Alexander the Great's generals. It prospered until it was sacked by the Persians in 540 AD and again in 612. The city was ruined in 1157 by an earthquake. What remains are pillars and the remnants of pillars stretching through rice fields. Stones dot the green hills as goats and cows graze. The setting borders on the fairy-tale. After walking the main ruins I walked further down the road to explore two more that I had seen. A boy followed me and insisted leading me where I was already going, and to get rid of him I gave him a few pounds.
Returning to the main road, a girl bade me stop. I stepped into a small tin shed where she sold snacks. She offered me a seat and soon I was surrounded by teenaged girls, who asked me various questions through one woman who spoke english. She told me she was a student in Aleppo studying architecture, then asked me my age. When I told her she asked me if I was married, and when I replied no, she asked why not. We chatted pleasantly, and I bought an ice cream. Her mother soon appeared, and she told me that her mother was often angry. But she wasn't that afternoon. Her mother wanted her to come visit her grandmother, but she didn't want to. I told her she should listen to her mother, which she translated. Her mother said I was right. To let her go, I made to leave, but she then invited me to her house. She said her brother wanted to meet with me, and so I agreed.
The house was just a few feet from the shed. She told me she had five sisters and three brothers. The brother I met was the middle brother. He was also attending university in Aleppo, studying education. I asked if he wanted to teach when he graduated and he said maybe. His father was an elemetary teacher in town. When I asked he told me that there were four elementary schools in the area, and I expressed surprise at how populous the area was, then asked why no one was in school. He told me that it was a holiday, and that he and his sister were back home to celebrate. I asked what holiday, but he didn't know how to describe it in English. It was a local holiday was all he could tell me.
His sister prepared coffee, and brought out a vegetable that looked like long lettuce. He taught me how to eat it, peeling off the green leafy area and eating the white parts. He told me that the closer to the heart, the better the plant was, and he was right. Once we got to the heart, he peeled it and offered it to me. The vegetable was refreshing, the coffee delicious. I asked if he was married and he told me he was only 22. It was still early. He had another year of school left in Aleppo and then he planned to return home, eventually to build a house when he married. I asked if he would marry someone locally, and he said he didn't know. He told me his family was not very traditional, and that he could choose. His sisters covered their heads with only scarves.
The afternoon wore on, and soon his mother appeared, leading his sisters to visit their grandmother. I bade them goodbye, and his sister said she hoped to see me in Aleppo. Unfortunately I had already been. Afraid to abuse my host's hospitality, I took my leave. He said it was still early yet, but I told him I had errands to run. We exchanged email addresses and he saw me to the door. As I waited by the side of the road for a minibus, shadows stretched across the street. I had told him it was good that the entire family lived so closely together, and he agreed. I had asked him if he thought of moving elsewhere, and he said no. His family lived in that town, his friends lived in the town, and he saw no reason to leave. His sister had told me she wanted to visit India and Japan, and that she liked Jackie Chan. I wonder now where she would most like to live.
May 5, 2004
Aleppo and beyond
Last night I had the best meal of my time thus far in the Middle East. Taking E.W.'s suggestion I went to the Biet al-Wahkil, where I feasted on cherry kebabs, a cold mezze of eggplant made with garlic and tomatos, and a hot mezze of meat wrapped in dough and deep fried. The kebabs arrived in a cherry sauce that was not too sweet and perfectly moistened the tender lamb. Delicious.
Today I had my first spiritual experience, as I sat and almost wept in the courtyard of the Grand Mosque in Aleppo. Blind men sang psalms in the vast courtyard, as people milled about on their way into and out of the inner sanctum. Along the corridors, women sat and ate; their children played. Beside me a group of women ate falafel, and commented on the number of pictures I was taking. I smiled and we conversed in mime. I told them I thought the place beautiful; they laughed at my picture-taking. I asked if I could take a picture of them, and one mimed that she thought herself too ugly, that I should spend my film on the structure and not on her.
As I left I ran into another group of women, one almost completely covered (I've noticed in Aleppo that there are a much higher number of women who are completely covered; I can't remember any in Lebanon now that I think of it). One pushed her son towards me to get his picture taken. He was shy. She gave him some seeds and he brought them over. I thanked him, and they invited me to sit. They were both teachers in Aleppo; one taught French and the other Arabic. We conversed in a smattering of French and English, as they asked me what I thought of Syria. I told them I thought it was a beautiful and generous place. When they asked if I were still a student, I told them I was 32. The woman less covered said she was 32 as well, and already had two children. The other looked at her watch and indicated the time. They wished me a pleasant trip and gathered their children to go home.
This morning I awoke early and wandered the souks of the old quarter. The stores were just awakening. Beams of light shonethrough small windows in the domed and arched passageways. I walked the length of the souk to the citadel, and climbed the almost 45 degree angled walkway to the door. From there I climbed to the roof, and wandered around above Aleppo, along with a group of schoolchildren. They shyly practiced saying hello and running away. Dropping back within its walls I explored the few open rooms, eventually finding my way to the sumptuously renovated throne room, above the main gate.
As the city had barely awoken, I decided to seek out the church of San Simeon, some 40 kilometers away. At the minibus station a man offered his taxi, but I told him I'd rather take the bus. He told me the bus stopped in Diet'Azarre, leaving me with 6km to go to the church. I told him I would walk; he directed me towards the correct bus.
Getting off at an intersection in the middle of town, I hitched a ride with a passing truck to the base of the church. He accepted 100 Syrian pounds ($1US = 51 pounds) and left me to climb the road to the site. At the top, the cashier offered me a seat. I rested, paid, and then climbed the rest of the way up.
The spectacular ruins rest on a hill above arid plains dotted with rocks. I had thought to skip this particular ruin, but I'm glad I didn't, as it proved one of my favorite thus far on this trip. Arched passages lead into the remains of the interior, as columns supported what remained. Devoted to St. Simon of Stylites, in 423 AD he climbed to the top of a 3m pillar and spent the next 36 years atop this and other pillars. After his death in 459, a chuch was built upon the most famous one. A boulder now commands the center of the main basilica.
As I began the walk back to town, a tour bus passed and waved. Then a man in a truck stopped. I asked him if he were going to Diet'Azarre, and he waved me in, moving a bouquet of flowers he had on the seat to the floor. I offered him payment, but he waved it away and offered me a sip of his (very good) beer. Once at the edge of Diet'Azarre, he indicated he was on his way to Haleb (Aleppo). I nodded and we sped away, passing all other traffic on the way. Soon we surpassed even the tour bus that had passed before.
In Aleppo, he dropped me off at a main mosque, and I asked directions for the way back to the old quarter. "It's very far," I was told, but it proved less than a kilometer from where I stood.
I'm much more relaxed today. Sitting in the mosque did me good. I've finally managed to get into the rhythm of travelling again; instead of rushing around, I'm taking my time and still managing to do more in a day than I had originally thought possible. The people I have met have also been wonderful. And I've learned to try to say things in Arabic before trying French. And a great meal tends to do wonders.
May 4, 2004
Arriving in Aleppo
[ Unfortunately this entry was accidentally deleted. I'll have to look to see if I can find another copy of it elsewhere and repost it. ]
May 3, 2004
Baalbek, LebanonLast night I wandered the Rue Fouad Chehab in Tripoli. Most of the shops were shuttered; few people wandered the streets. I paused to watch a man pruning the palm trees. I stood in front of a sweets cafe, and the waiter told me the man was sixty-five years old. He would prune all the palms down the street he told me. Then asked if I wanted a photo in the palm. He could give me a rope with which to climb. I smiled and declined.
This morning I took a series of buses to Baalbek. The route through the mountains is closed due to the snow, and so I backtracked to Beirut, taking one minibus, then another. From Baalbek I backtracked to Chtaura in order to visit Aanjar, Lebanon's best-preserved Islamic archeological site. The owner of my guesthouse told me to take a service taxi for 1,000 LL, but I was tired and lazy and hadn't eaten all day and so I was lulled into taking a minivan for ten dollars (1 dollar=1,500 LL). Once we arrived at the city center the minivan stopped. The man asked for his money. No, I told him. I pointed to the picture of Aanjar on my brochure. You told me ten, I told him. The man shook his head. To the ruins is 15 he said. I take you to Aanjar's town center. We argued for five minutes. I refused to get off the bus, the man refused to budge. The driver was ready to give in. The ticket collector threatened to call the police. I sat back and waited. I tried to make him understand that I was under the impression that the price we agreed upon was for a return trip.
Finally the minivan moved, but the ticket-seller told the driver to stop. They argued. I pleaded with the driver, who spoke no English. The ticket-seller barely spoke English. We argued and waved our hands in the air. Finally we agreed on 12 dollars, and I chalked it up a lack of communication. Thus far, I have been amazed with friendliness and generosity of the Lebanese, and I was surprised at the argument we had. But it wasn't enough to spoil the lovely ruins as we approached.
Discovered in the 1940s, Aanjar is the only significant Umayyad site in Lebanon. Built in the eighth century A.D., the city was built along symmetrical Roman lines. Little remains of the pillars and buildings. Most of the site consists of foundations, save for the reconstructed sections of the great palace.
I walked back to the highway. Within seconds, a service taxi honked and stopped. Chtaura, I told him. He waved me in. I gave him 1,000 LL. Where you from, he asked. I told him. Where are your friends? he asked. I have no friends, I told him and smiled. He said he saw me walking alone by the side of the road and wondered what had happened to me. Where my group was. I told him I was travelling alone. He beeped his horn and stopped to let a passenger in. The man told him his destination, and the driver waved him in.
The Roman ruins in Baalbek loom on the edge of town. Plainly visible from the town are the temple devoted to Bacchus and the six remaining pillars of the Temple of Jupiter. The structures are immense, the columns towering over everything else. I walked and sat and took pictures and sat some more. Termed the "Sun City" of the ancient world, the ruins are Baalbek are arguably the most impressive Roman site in the Middle East.
For dinner I had the best chicken shwarma of my life. For the first few days of my trip I was subsisting on falafel. Yesterday I started to branch out, sampling the many terrific sweets on offer in Tripoli. Before dinner I had sat in my room overlooking the old city drinking tea and gorging myself on a sampling I had purchased. Tomorrow I am off to Syria, taking the bus north to Aleppo. E.W. had recommended I visit Damascus first, or be disappointed after Aleppo, but today I travelled the road from here to the border near Damascus three times, and I'm unwilling to do it again. At this point, heading north seems to require less backtracking in the future. I'm sorry to leave Lebanon. I've found it incredibly welcoming, and I've experienced cities known before only in my imagination. I can only imagine what Syria will bring.
May 2, 2004
To visit Tripoli is to lose yourself in its souks. If Saida was an introduction to Medieval towns, then the old quarter of Tripoli is an immersion. The city is fascinating and overwhelming and I spent my first afternoon merely wandering around, trying to find my bearings. My first stop was the Great Mosque. It was just after the hour of prayer and people were leaving the courtyard. A small band appeared in the doorway, and people watched as a man twirled to the beat of the drums. I sat along one of the side corridors, entranced by the daily activity of those around me. An older man chased away the children who started congregating around me, asking me to take their picture. Soon after another man appeared, asking me to take his own portrait.
Moving on, I climbed into the hills rising above the city to the Citadel of Tripoli. Converted into a church by the Crusaders, the remnants boast Crusader structures of the 12th-13th centuries, a number of 14th century Mamluke additions, as well as additions made by Ottomans in the 16th century. The views from atop its ramparts of the city are amazing. From there, I wandered through the grocery souk to the Hanging Mosque, so named for its position above the street. A few men slept inside, and from its windows I watched the street below.
I spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering blindly through the streets, disregarding the map, trying to soak it all in. Children clambored to have their picture taken; one particularly rambunctious child tried to steal my hat. In one quiet corner a group of men played backgammon and invited me to watch. I have never seen the game played so quickly or adeptly. The game was over in minutes.
This morning I took a bus to Bcharre, to walk in the only existing Biblical forest of Cedars remaining in Lebanon. Before, cedars crowned the tops of all the mountains in this country until over-exploitation greatly diminished their numbers. The bus climbed quickly the winding roads. Villages hovered on the edge of cliffs that plunged down into the Kadisha valley.
Known as the birthplace of Kahlil Gibran, Bcharre celebrates its most famous resident with a museum devoted to his works. A former monestary, the museum also houses Gibran himself who, in deference to his wishes, is buried there. The forest of cedars lie above the town, nestled between slopes of the Lebanon mountain range.
The small forest was peaceful. Snow clung to the slopes, and covered parts of the path. A light rain began to fall. I retreated to the comfort of a taxi, and directed the driver to the Kahlil Gibran museum. The man selling tickets asked I had read The Prophet. Not yet, but soon, I told him. I thought about purchasing a copy in the store, but was reluctant to carry it around.
By the time I left the museum, the rain had started coming down in earnest. I was glad for the minibus that passed at the foot of the road. "Tripoli?" the driver asked. I nodded and climbed inside, napping most of the way back.
In Tripoli, the skies cleared and I spent the remainder of the day catching up on sights I missed the day before, including the beautiful remains of the Hammam al-Jadid and the spectacular Taynal Mosque, where I was welcomed by the keeper of the mosque himself.
On looking for the Khankah, I asked a woman with a child in tow. She looked at me and pointed to the arch we were standing under. I was already there. She walked through, and I followed her to find the Khankah occupied by families. I backed out slowly the way I came.
May 1, 2004
A night out in Beirut
Tripoli, LebanonBeirut is a city built, like Rome, on seven hills. It has since sprawled over 19. I spent the afternoon back from Byblos touring the downtown area, with its cordoned off streets, ancient mosques, and Roman ruins. Passing by one church under reconstruction, I was invited in by one of workers to take pictures. Scaffolding held the church together. Workers waved from their perches. Above me, one scraped the stone with a water jet. As I felt the spray upon my neck, I realized that everyone wore hard hats but me.
With the rest of the afternoon to spare, I wandered the grounds of the American University of Beirut. A small archeological museum was being renovated; the artifacts had been moved to a study room. The campus was peaceful and quiet, and I sat under the shade of a tree to update my journal, the ever-present Mediterranean stretched out before me.
S.S. called at 8.30pm. She had been bumped the night before and had spent an hour trying to direct her cab driver from the airport to her bed and breakfast. She had come in from Amman after spending a few months in Baghdad, working as a photojournalist. One of her photos won a World Press Photo award last year.
We met at my hotel and went to a nearby Italian restaurant. When we tried to enter the dimly lit room, a man asked if we were looking for the restaurant. We nodded and he directed us upstairs. S. looked at me and the plethora of nightclubs in the area, then mused that we might have tried to walk into a strip club. "But I live in an upscale area of town!" I protested. A Radisson hotel dominated the block.
Over fettucini and risotto funghi, we talked about Baghdad, the Middle East, and photography. She said she had recently had a close call, after being caught in a firefight while following a convoy of relief workers. She had had to run and throw herself into a ditch by the side of the road. A reporter friend of hers had thought to visit in the past, but with recent events she told her not to come. She's looking to spend some time away from the war, expanding her portfolio and working on some more personal stories. Still, she keeps an apartment there, housing a sofa and a cat.
After dinner we took a taxi to the Place d'Etoile, and walked the pedestrian mall. People filled the sidewalk cafes, eating, laughing, and smoking. In one cafe, a Turkish band played and the waiter danced for the crowd. I followed the rhythmic clapping to find him flipping on the ground and whirling through the aisles. In more quiet corners of the area, men sang and played the oud.
S. told me that the Dunkin' Donuts was a big hangout. She had met a group of gay Lebanese there the last time she was in town, and spent the week following them around. She's thinking of doing a story on them. She told me that once they became friends they wouldn't let her go. After dropping her off at her hotel, they would ask if they could pick her up in two hours to go out again.
At the Virgin Megastore, one of the salesmen invited us out for a drink. He looked at his watch. "In half an hour," he told us. S. marveled at Arabic hospitality, especially in Beirut. "Baghdad needs more of this," she tells me, though she notes that the people in Iraq are incredibly friendly. Over dinner she told me stories of being invited into the homes of the poorest residents for tea. "They'll always at least offer you tea; even if they have almost nothing themselves," she told me.
Half an hour later, our host introduced us to a friend of his, a journalist for a local newspaper. "I'll take you to a new place," our host told us. "Not an old place. The problem with old places is that you meet everyone, and you cannot be in peace. I'll take you to Torino." His friend drove us in his Chevy Corsica. Our host pointed at a bar. "That's an old place. I'm not taking you there. It's good. But it's an old place. I'm taking you to a new place. Ah! Here it is!" We stepped out of the car and into a small crowded bar. He greeted some people and we sat at a table. "Damn," he said. "Only fags and cross-dressers sit at tables. We need to get to the bar!"
The D.J. wore a black shirt. White letters read "Who the fuck is Mick Jagger." One Stones song played after another. "I love this music. I love the Stones," our host said. "I have this album. I had the original vinyl Andy Warhol cover with the zipper," he said. "I gave it to my ex-girlfriend. Now I don't have it."
We ordered mojitos, and complimented the bartender. He told us he used rum aged three years. He brought us the bottle to prove it. Our host talked the entire evening. A philosophy student, he talked about marrying our evening lives with that of our days. He talked about taking cues from our dreams. He told us his birthday was Tuesday. S. asked him how old he will be. He talked about the blues. He talked about rock and roll. S. asked him again. He talked about Andre Breton. He talked about collecting records. S. asked him again. He talked about Keith Richards. He talked about Mick Jaggar. He was shocked when we suggested he had slept with David Bowie. I was getting drunk.
At two, the bar closed. Our host's friend had gotten into trouble with a girl he knew at the bar. He asked what we were doing the next day. He had a plan to go to the beach. I told him I was going to Tripoli. "No!" he said. "You should stay in Beirut. Beirut is the heart! When is your flight?" I told him I was staying five or six days. "You should spend five days in Beirut!" he told me. "We'll go to the beach!" No, I said. I'm a tourist. I must tour. "Fine! He told me. Go to Tripoli! You will see nothing! Where are you staying?" I told him. "That is a good area! You're staying in a hotel?" No, I said. A hostel. "That is a terrible area!" he said. "Come, we'll take you home!"
We climbed back into the Corsica and I directed us to the hostel. I shook hands with our host, who wished me luck. "Can I kiss your hand?" he asked me. Of course, I said. His beard scratched the back of my hand.